Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Horton Foote: "The Cumulative Momentum of the Mundane"

Excerpted from
LUCKY MAN: Horton Foote's three acts
by John Lahr
The New Yorker, October 26, 2009
"If a poet knows more about a horse than he does about heaven, he might better stick to the horse," Foote was fond of saying, quoting the father of his favorite American composer, Charles Ives. "Someday the horse might carry him to heaven."
. . .
Crucially, more by accident than by intention, he found his way into Method acting lessons with two recently arrived emigres from Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre, Andrius Jilinsky and Vera Soloviova, who taught that "to create truth on the stage, you must be acquainted with your own truth." (To Foote, this strategy became bedrock; throughout his life, he maintained an aesthetic of unvarnished narrative truthfulness.) By degrees, he came to know other Method acolytes, among them Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Franchot Tone, Clifford Odets, Sanford Meisner, and Tennessee Williams.

Foote thought of Williams, who was eight years older, as "artistically my big brother." He followed his lead in rejecting the schematic ideological drama of the thirties and writing plays that embraced the personal instead. . . .

As writers, Williams and Foote were opposites. Williams was a hysteric who wanted to seduce the audience with the truth of his lament; Foote's plays bore witness to the emotional truth of history. Williams wrote out of a sense of absence, Foote out of a sense of fullness. Williams was a romantic who destroyed himself for meaning; Foote was a conservative who made meaning of the world he sought to preserve. In his storytelling, Williams was melodramatic and extravagant; Foote preferred a sly, understated simplicity. "I've tried to be more theatrical, more sensational. It's not my style," he said. "I admire Shakespeare greatly, and deeply love to read him, but his is not my favorite type of theatre. Often it embarrasses me and also I don't believe a lot of it." In Foote's plays, the big dramatic events happen offstage. Foote examined the ripple, not the wave. He was a quiet voice in noisy times. . . .

Lillian Gish in Trip To Bountiful, Broadway

Foote's plays "The Chase" (1952) and "The Trip To Bountiful" (1953) were staged in New York, but received little attention. Unlike the major playwrights of the period – Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge – he had no axe to grind, no moral posture to strike, no rebarbative wit to peddle, and none of the sensational theatrics that thrilled commercial audiences. Things happened in Foote's stories, but nobody was blowtorched, castrated, raped, eaten alive, or snowed in with a beautiful woman; nor did anyone commit suicide for the insurance money. Foote could not make a living or a reputation on Broadway. . . .

To Kill A Mockingbird

"Keep your ear to the ground and concentrate on honesty," Williams wrote to Foote in 1944. Throughout his career, Foote did just that. From the ordinary, he teased out a subtle song, which was at once true and tender. In his screen adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird," for instance – "a work of such quiet and unobtrusive excellence that many people have commented the film's dialogue was lifted chapter and verse from the novel. This is simply not so," Lee wrote. . . .

Robert Duvall, who made his film-acting debut as Boo Radley, the subnormal next-door neighbor who saves the lives of Finch's children, and who appeared in six other Foote projects, including an Academy Award-winning performance as the fallen country singer Mac Sledge, in Tender Mercies (Beresford, 1983), compared Foote's dialogue to "sandpiper prints." "They're very delicate," he said. "It's very deep, very specific. His work you have to let lay there and find its own impetus."


Nowhere in Foote's canon is the cumulative momentum of the mundane more powerful than in Tomorrow (1972), Foote's inspired film adaptation (based on his 1968 stage version) of a 1940 Faulkner short story. A low-budget masterpiece, directed by Joseph Anthony, the movie flashes back from a murder trial that has ended with a hung jury, and is narrated by the defense lawyer, who can't fathom why one holdout on the jury – a plainspoken Mississippi farm laborer named Jackson Fentry (Duvall) – wouldn't vote to acquit an upstanding rancher, H.T. Bookwright (Jeff Williams), who is accused of murdering a cattle thief and lowlife, Buck Thorpe, who was running off with his daughter. . . .

The story that unfolds in flashback . . . is entirely Foote's invention. . . . Foote's uncanny ability to expand another writer's narrative was an offshoot of his ability to listen. (Faulkner liked Foote's version so much that he shared his royalties with him.) In Faulkner's tale, Foote heard the themes of enduring suffering and enduring love, on which his own plays ruminated. "I've known people the world has thrown everything at . . . and yet something about them retains dignity," Foote said. . . .

Foote, who rebelled against the fire and brimstone of the Methodist reaching he grew up with, became a Christian Scientist in 1953. "I am deeply religious but I never write from that point of view," he said. "I don't proselytize." Foote believed that "spiritual values lead you to hunger for more spiritual values." The placid surfaces of his stories conceal an undertow of the eternal. Hymns frequntly signal this immanence. In "The Trip to Bountiful," for instance, Carrie Watts's hymn-singing implies her spiritual restlessness and her longing for transcendence. . . .

In his own household, Foote often repeated the Christian Science axiom "Divine love always has met, and always will meet, every human need." He read the Christian Science Quarterly and did his Bible lessons every day. "I think it sustained him," his daughter Hallie said. "He felt that there was something bigger than he was out there, and he respected that. It encouraged him to follow his instincts rather than impose something on them." The constant flow of his work was evidence of his faith, which worked as an antidote "to being fearful or shut down," Hallie said. Foote himself gave God credit for his literary productivity: "That doesn't come from me – that is, I reflect qualities of God," he said. In an undogmatic way, his plays are more often than not demonstrations of spiritual grace; they try to trap a sense of the miraculous in the ordinary.

Tender Mercies

In Tender Mercies, for instance, the newly baptized Mac Sledge is saved from the hell of alcoholism and the waste of his life and talent by the love of a woman and her son, who literally and symbolically give him a new song. In "Bountiful," Carrie Watts tells the sheriff who takes her the last miles of her odyssey, "Before I leave this earth, I'd like to recover some of the dignity . . . the peace I used to know." She finds salvation not, as expected, in the land but in the journey. She can now join her family and live out her days in harmony, instead of in resignation. That internal harmony also defined Foote; of his almost unnerving calm, Harper Lee said, "He's like God, only clean-shaven." . . .

Because he broke no new artistic ground and staked no intellectual claims, he has only a minor place in American theatre history. But, within the limits of his compassionate vision, he was an expert storyteller, who achieved something that no other modern American playwright has: he had not only a second but a third act. At present, his screenplay Main Street is in production; "The Orphans' Home Cycle" is in performance; a biography, "Horton Foote: America's Storyteller," by Wilborn Hampton, ahs just been published; and The Horton Foote Review: The Journal of the Horton Foote Society continues to debate the issues and nuances of his oeuvre. "He had a gift and an ear," Hallie said. "There's a side of me that feels like that was a kind of a divine thing. He was lucky."

Tender Mercies

Snarky about television

In my new post at Filmwell, I get snarky about television...

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, October 12 2009

The new Ricky Gervais film, THE INVENTION OF LYING, postulates a world in which no one has ever told a lie. We know this because the hero tells us all about it in an opening voice-over. It is the first, small warning sign that the movie may not be firing right. . . One delight of THE TRUMAN SHOW was the onus it placed on viewers from the start, both daring us and trusting us to work out, at our own speed, just what the hell was going on in that spotless seaside town. No such joy from Gervaise. . . who seems to have mislaid the T-shirt that is handed to every first-time movie director - the one that reads "Show, Don't Tell." That is a shame, because the conceit itself is ripe with possibility. . . .

We have heard something similar before, in LIAR LIAR (1997), which presented Jim Carrey as a lonely blurter in a mendacious world. Here the situation is reversed. Everyone dwells in veracity except for Mark, who, one day, at a bank, suddenly tells a lie; we watch it happening, inside his brain, a rare synaptic spark, and it nets him five hundred dollars. . . . He comforts his aged mother as she fades away in a nursing home. . . with an off-the-cuff account of a radiant afterlife, complete with mansions, where she will continue to exist. "Go on," one of the nurses urges him.

So he does, and THE INVENTION OF LYING promptly lurches into another gear, with Mark finding fame as a Moses figure, with a hint of John the Baptist. The difference is that those men believed what they foretold, whereas Mark makes it up as he goes along, scribbling nostrums on whatever comes to hand. "Everything you need to know is written on these pizza boxes," he declares to a crowd of people gathered outside his apartment, telling them of a mysterious "man in the sky" who controls their destinies, and promising them eternal ice cream if they behave well on earth. Audiences here should be reminded, at this point, that Gervais found his fame on the BBC, with "The Office" and "Extras," and that the execration of religious faith, specifically Christianity - plus a reflex sneer at the fools who fall for it - has, in the past decade, become the default mode of British cultural life. It makes sense, I suppose, for Gervais to use his film to air such mockery, if spiritual belief genuinely strikes him as a lie like any other; the plan would carry more weight, however, if he didn't use the rest of the film to air his transcendent belief in Ricky Gervais. . . .

Toward the end, THE INVENTION OF LYING becomes almost a one-man show; we find ourselves in a traditional church (who built that?), with the Cross digitally removed from its steeple and an icon of Mark, with outstretched arms, above the altar. So, the sweet best friend with the snub nose not only gets the girl; he gets to play the man in the sky. Talk about invention.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

NOW PLAYING: You The Living, A Serious Man, It Might Get Loud

Quick note about three Soul Food-ish titles playing this week.

YOU, THE LIVING is at Pacific Cinematheque Thursday night only, 7:30. More Nordic strangeness with distinctly Biblical moments, from the creator of SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR. I saw it at VIFF last year or the year before, and liked it immensely.

Jeff Overstreet is recommending A SERIOUS MAN, the Coen brothers' latest, a Book Of Job story set among the Jewish community in the 1960s midwest. TinselTown (3:00 4:15 5:30 6:45 8:00 9:15 10:30) and the Park (4:00 7:00 9:20).

Not that there's any straight up Soul food, but Soul Foodies are often U2 fans, and The Edge is featured in IT MIGHT GET LOUD, a celebration of the rock guitar. TinselTown 2:50, 5:10, 7:40, 10:00

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Retro-Modern Movie Posters

Marvelous post at My Modern Met blog, featuring new posters for well-known films created by a number of graphic artists, in a retro / modernist vein. Gorgeous work! Here's a sampling...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Favourite Films, 2000-2009: First Draft

I don't think the first decade of the new millennium actually ends until 2010 is over, does it? But people are starting to tally their "Best Films Of The Decade" lists, and of course I can't resist.

It actually makes a certain kind of sense to consider as a group any films released after 1999, if only because 1999 was such a remarkable year at the movies. Remarkable year for Soul Food Movies, in fact, but generally speaking, a watershed.

So I scanned some lists and started tallying the movies of the past ten years that have entered my personal pantheon of beloved films. For starters, here we go.

The first three are easy. After that, it's going to take some thinking. (And of course, there will be plenty of contenders yet to be released in 2009).

1. Dogville
2. The Son
3. Pan's Labyrinth

About A Boy
About Schmidt
Adam's Apples
After The Wedding
The Assassination of Jesse James
Born into Brothels
Dirty Pretty Things
The Diving Bell & The Butterfly
Gosford Park
High Fidelity
I'm Not There
In Bruges
Into The Wild
Italian For Beginners
The Lord of the Rings
The Man Without A Past
Matchstick Men
The Merchant Of Venice
Napoleon Dynamite
O Brother Where Art Thou
Open Range
Passion of the Christ, The
Pieces of April
Rivers & Tides
Silent Light
Son Of Man
The Station Agent
The Woodsman

Oct 15 VIFF Pick: The White Ribbon (Haneke)

The White Ribbon ["Das Weisse Band"]
(Austria , Germany , France, Italy, 2009, 144 mins, 35mm)
Mon, Oct 12th 9:00pm | Empire Granville 7
Thu, Oct 15th 3:00pm | Empire Granville 7

Winner of the Palme d'Or, Cannes 2009. In a German village in the early part of the last century, something is terribly amiss with the children. As always, Michael Haneke's take on the human condition resists easy definition. "A rich, detailed work pregnant with the sinister undertones and evil deeds for which the filmmaker's work is legendary..." - Screen International
With this new film, Haneke returns to his classic themes of guilt, denial and violence as the mysterious symptoms of mass dysfunction. The White Ribbon is a period film set in a secluded northern German village on the eve of the first world war, shot in a pellucid monochrome, impeccably acted, and directed with this filmmaker's icily exact rigour and severity.

An isolated community is shaken by unpleasant, inexplicable events: a razor trip-wire fells the local doctor on his horse, and he is badly injured. The landowning baron's son is found, bound and whipped. A boy with Down's syndrome is horribly abused. The white ribbon of the title is a badge of mortification: the pastor's children must wear it as a reminder of their sinful state and need for purity. But of course it is effectively the symbol of the retaliatory violence to come.

Like Haneke's earlier film HIDDEN, this is to some degree about the return of the repressed. Unlike that movie, however, The White Ribbon is not about the repercussions of a single buried event, but a continuous diseased process, in which those without power... are in a permanent state of futile rebellion against authority, expressed in spiteful acts of anonymous nastiness... The White Ribbon has an absolute confidence and mastery of its own cinematic language, and the performances Haneke elicits from his first-rate cast, particularly the children, are eerily perfect. The Guardian

The film just played in the New York Film Festival. There's a fine profile of the director in the Oct 5 New Yorker: here are some clippings...

And here's a link to something I wrote on my last encounter with Herr Haneke, at VIFF 2006 - TIME OF THE WOLF - available at Videomatica, as are most of the director's films.

Oct 15 VIFF Pick: Letters To Father Jacob

Letters to Father Jacob [Finland]
Thu, Oct 15th 6:20pm
Empire Granville 7

A simple but transcendent story about faith and human frailty achieves a state of grace in Letters to Father Jacob. Centring on a tough ex-con temporarily serving as an amanuensis for a blind pastor in rural Finland, director Klaus Härö's magisterial control over the proceedings renders predictable material into something fresh and heart-rending, particularly for thoughtful audiences.

Surprised at being pardoned 12 years into a life sentence, hard-bitten killer Leila (Kaarina Hazard) takes the prison warden’s suggestion and winds up at the ramshackle parsonage of Father Jacob. The elderly man needs a secretary to pursue his main joy in life: answering the letters of those who write asking for his help. Although Leila regards the pastor’s correspondence as pointless, it ultimately plays a role in her own redemption and self-forgiveness.

In what’s essentially a perfectly cast two-hander, both leads provide remarkable, exquisitely calibrated performances. The heavyset masculine-looking Hazard (a feminist academic and writer) makes one feel a lifetime of repressed anger in Leila’s stomping and banging, while Nousiainen (a TV vet) movingly conveys Jacob’s anguish and vulnerability... Working in wide screen, prize-winning cinematographer Tuomo Hutri supplies director Härö’s trademark lush visuals, while an affecting piano score gives extra weight to big emotional moments.

Richard Brody on CREATION

From The Front Row, Richard Brody's New Yorker movie blog...
"Macy Halford worries that religious conservatives in America are getting in the way of movie distributors picking up CREATION for U.S. release. She cites ... the film’s producer, Jeremy Thomas, and anti-evolution invective spewed about the film on conservative Christian Web sites, but it seems to me that Thomas is just doing his job as a producer: he’s trying to shame or flatter a distributor into ponying up for it.

"Could it be that Thomas is holding out for a U.S. distribution deal rich enough to require a large national release? In other words, could this really be about money rather than religion? And one more thing; look at the trailer:

"Doesn’t it look bland? There are lots of films from around the world that don’t have American distribution, many of great artistic significance. I’d like to see a movie about Darwin, about the work that went into the discovery of evolution, and, for that matter, about the controversy it still arouses. Is “Creation” the one we’ve been waiting for? I have my doubts."

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Oct 11-17: Homelessness Action Week, THE CATS OF MIRIKITANI & THIS DUST OF WORDS

Soul Food friend Judy Graves is the person at the City of Vancouver who is our point person for homelessness. (Some people say she's responsible for homelessness in Vancouver, but I'm not sure we can blame her exclusively). She's not just an office worker: Judy spends much of her time in the streets and alleys and parks and shelters, and knows by name pretty much everybody you've ever given a loonie to.

Anyhow, she sent this note...

Steven Ng is showing my two personal favourite homelessness movies October 16. CATS OF MIRIKITANI and THIS DUST OF WORDS. If you haven't yet watched these two documentaries - I strongly recommend that you make this your Homeless Action Week treat to yourself.

Each movie gives us a lifechanging shift in world view. Each gives more questions than answers. Both impact my day to day work profoundly.


(CATS is available at Videomatica)

There will also be a related film event on the North Shore...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

AMADEUS (1984, USA, Milos Forman, Peter Shaffer play and screenplay)

Whilst my father prayed earnestly to God to protect commerce, I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of. “Lord, make me a great composer! Let me celebrate your glory through music - and be celebrated myself! Make me famous through the world, dear God! Make me immortal! After I die let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote! In return I vow I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility every hour of my life. And I will help my fellow man all I can. Amen and amen!”

What extraordinary writing! Economy, irony, implication – volumes are spoken in this one brief speech, themes sounded that will be repeated and inverted in subtle variations throughout the film. Salieri, speaking at the end of his life, recounts the childhood prayer that set the course of his life. He critiques the self-serving prayers of his father, a merchant, yet his own prayer is every bit as mercenary: he isn’t confiding in a loving Father, he’s unilaterally setting the terms of a quid pro quo contract, and presuming that makes it binding on both parties. When he calls the prayer “proud” he means it was noble, but we hear the irony as he names the cardinal sin that will come to define him. He pledges a chastity he will readily cast aside when he decides God isn’t keeping His end of the bargain, he promises a humility that will only ever be evident in recognizing – and coveting, and seeking to destroy – another man’s greater gift. The musical gift of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

These vows amuse us at the same time as they trouble us. They are childish, speaking a conventional piety as naïve as a Boy Scout promise – “and do a good turn to somebody every day.” But the fact the man who recounts them has never outgrown them, that he repeats them without recognizing their vanity, is chilling. What we smile at in the child, we recoil from in the man. By the time Salieri whines “all I ever wanted was to sing to God,” we know better.

Salieri believes he yearns only for eternity: we recognize a thoroughly earthly-minded man lusting for a merely earthbound immortality. Cruel justice lies in the fact that his prayer will in fact be answered. The now-aged man’s final speech picks up this opening theme and plays it back in an ironic inversion, and we realize that he is in fact remembered centuries after his death. People are writing plays and making movies about him. How pathetic.

When the young Salieri’s father chokes to death on a piece of fish and the self-consumed lad is sent away to study music, he takes it as a miracle – “I knew God had arranged it all; that was obvious” – and it is all clear: this God will do Salieri’s bidding, and even murder is an acceptable means to that end. How tragic.

Indeed, for all its energy and brilliantly entertaining wit, this film is a classic tragedy: not the story of Mozart at all, except indirectly, but the story of a man who could have been noble, or at least godly, but whose tragic flaw brings not only his own ruin, but the ruin of those around him. And this is a singularly theological tragedy: Salieri's tragic flaw is "the eldest sin of all, that struck down the morning star from heaven." The deadliest of the deadly sins.

“Amadeus” means “beloved of God.” Celebrated playwright Anthony Shaffer – preoccupied (like his playwriting twin brother, Peter) with twinning, and with the clash between conventional religiosity and a wilder, more dangerous communion with the divine – imagines in this not-quite-historical story something of a Cain and Abel tale, a Jacob and Esau rivalry. He considers what it may have been like to labour as a moderately skilled composer in the shadow of one of the sublime musical geniuses of all time. To believe oneself cursed because of another’s greater measure of blessing.

One smart friend is convinced the film is anti-religious, and certainly the image of God the film conveys is thoroughly unappealing. But perhaps the film is not so much anti-religious as it is the study of an anti-religious man. Bear in mind that this is Salieri's story, his version of event. We see everything through his jaundiced eye – including God. If his deity seems cruel, withholding, manipulative, capricious, punishing, are we seeing a true image of the Father, or only one that Salieri makes in his own image (or that of his own father?).

Or perhaps it is even closer to the truth to say that the film is not anti-religious, but rather anti-religion - if by religion we mean the things we do to please God. Biblical scholar Robert Jewett reads immense theological insight in the film, arguing that it conveys “a distinctive and little-understood aspect of the theology of Romans”: that sin, properly understood, has little to do with the conventional sense of sin as indecency – Mozart’s arrogance and crudity, his irresponsibility and unwillingness to conform to social niceties – and everything to do with the self-deception of the self-righteous man who would set himself against God. Who would set himself up as God.

The film doesn’t gloss over the sins of Amadeus – as winsome as he can be, he also acts out his own high-flying arrogance, lives in deadly thrall to his own vices. “There is none righteous, not one.” But he possesses a humanity, ultimately a vulnerability, that leaves room for the glories of grace Salieri can hear in “The Marriage Of Figaro” but not live. That can find the humility to ask forgiveness from one who is all the more in need of it.


Available at Videomatica

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Oct 17/18: Stone Soup Film Festival

Note from Soul Foodie Rosie Perera...

Hi Ron,

Here’s something to blog about at Soul Food Movies.

The full festival details are here.

I’ve seen one of the films being shown – the short documentary “A Well-Watered Garden” (which I own a copy of) about some Regent students who did a form of “guerilla gardening” to pretty up a vacant lot in the Downtown Eastside. The festival isn’t coming from a Christian perspective, but many Christians are thinking about these issues. I found out about the film festival through an email that was send out to all participants in the Food Course that Loren & Mary Ruth Wilkinson taught.

-- Rosie